Assassins fate, p.10
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       Assassin's Fate, p.10

         Part #3 of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  feathers on a bird or the colours on a butterfly’s wings. They were beautiful and alien, wondrous to behold. I thought of the children I had healed and of the Rain Wilders I had glimpsed in my days here. Their changes were random, as often grotesque as pretty. The differences were striking and the fate of those randomly affected by contact with dragons was appalling.

  Our servant escort had vanished. We stood smiling and uncertain. Should I dismiss Spark and Perseverance or were they part of the ‘Six Duchies emissaries’ that the invitation had addressed? Spark was describing the room, the people and their garments to Amber in a low murmur. I did not interrupt.

  General Rapskal stood tall even among the tall Elderlings and was broader of shoulder than many. He wore a less martial air tonight, being clothed in a tunic of blue with yellow trousers and soft blue footwear. He carried no weapons that I could see. I knew that did not mean he was unarmed. With him were the two Elderlings I had seen following his commands earlier. One of them, I surmised, was Kase. Both were scaled in orange, and the eyes they turned toward us were copper, and both were heavily muscled. I’d wager they could brawl hard if provoked.

  The blue Elderling woman wore her wings outside her long tunic tonight, folded smoothly to her back. Their feathery scales were a patterned display of blues and silvers, with touches of black and white. I wondered at the weight of them on her slender, once-human frame. Her long black hair was confined in rows of braids that were interrupted with beads and small silver charms. The Elderling man beside her had green scaling and dark hair. He looked directly at us, spoke to his mate, and then moved toward us purposefully. I tried not to stare at the odd pattern of scales on his cheek as he greeted me.

  ‘Prince FitzChivalry, I should like to introduce myself. I’m Tats. Thymara and I thank you for what you did for our daughter. Her feet and legs are still sore but she finds it much easier to walk.’

  ‘I am glad I was able to help her.’ He had not offered his hand and so I kept mine at my side.

  Thymara spoke. ‘I thank you. For the first time in many weeks, she can sleep without pain.’ She hesitated and then added, ‘She said that her chest feels different. She had not complained of it but now she says that it is easier to breathe with her skin not so tight?’ Her inflection made the statement a question.

  I smiled and said only, ‘I am glad she is more comfortable.’ I had a vague recollection of a keel-bone such as a bird might have … had their child been developing it? It did not seem tactful to admit that I could not clearly recall what the Skill had done to her through me.

  Thymara’s earnest gaze met my eyes and then travelled to Amber. ‘Would that you could be rewarded as you deserve,’ she said softly.

  A mellifluous chime sounded. Thymara smiled at me again. ‘Well, we are to be seated now. Thank you again. And always.’ They moved gracefully away from me, and I became aware that while we had spoken other Elderlings had arrived. Once, I had been an assassin with an edge, constantly aware of my surroundings. I wasn’t so tonight, and it was not just that my Skill-walls were so tight. I had lost the habit of extreme alertness. When had I last been the competent assassin that Chade had trained? Not for a long time. When I had lived at Withywoods with Molly that would have pleased me. Here and now it seemed a serious failure.

  I spoke low to Lant. ‘Stay alert. If you notice anything untoward, let me know immediately.’ He gave me an incredulous glance that threatened to become a smile before he gained control of his face. Together we moved in an unhurried way toward the tables. I saw no indication of any protocol related to seating. King Reyn and Queen Malta had entered but were engaged in deep conversation with a lanky blue-scaled Elderling. Phron, looking much livelier now, was with them. Their talk seemed to involve us, for twice he gestured toward us. Where were we expected to sit? Awkward – and potentially a social disaster. Thymara glanced over at us, spoke to her mate and then hastened back to us. ‘You may sit wherever you please. Would you like to be together, or to mingle?’

  I longed to exchange a glance with Amber. Instead I patted her hand on my arm fondly and she immediately replied, ‘Together, if we may.’

  ‘Of course.’ But I did not see five adjacent seats until Thymara matter-of-factly called out, ‘Alum. Sylve. Jerd. Harrikin. Bump down and make some room!’

  The Elderlings so addressed laughed at her abrupt manner and promptly shifted their seating to free up a rank of five chairs. ‘There. Please,’ Thymara invited, and we were seated. Thymara and her mate took seats as Malta and Reyn joined us at the table. No royal procession into the room, no announcements of names. No titles for the keepers, no variance in rank was apparent. Except for General Rapskal.

  Servants brought dishes of food and set them down to be passed for the Elderlings to serve themselves. The meat was wild game, venison or bird. The bread was not plentiful, but there were four fish dishes and three kinds of root vegetables. The menu told me that Kelsingra could feed itself, but not with great variety.

  Perseverance and Spark conversed with an Elderling named Harrikin. Seated beyond him was a girlish Elderling. Sylve was pink and gold, with sparse hair but an intricate pattern of scalp scales. They were discussing fishing, and Sylve was unabashedly describing how difficult it had been to keep her dragon fed when they had journeyed from Trehaug to discover Kelsingra. Lant was smiling and nodding, but his gaze often roved the room watchfully. To my right, Amber was seated next to Nortel. He was explaining that it was his dragon, Tinder, we had first encountered near the fountains. He hoped he had not seemed too aggressive; the dragons were unaccustomed to being surprised. Amber nodded, and managed her utensils and food almost as if sighted.

  We ate. We drank. We endeavoured to converse in that awkward way one does when attempting to speak loud enough to be heard over a dozen other conversations. Being in the thick of such an occasion was very different to spying on it from behind a wall. From a higher vantage point, I could have quickly deduced the alliances, rivalries and enmities in the room. Trapped in the midst of it, I could only guess. I hoped that Lant, safely layered between me and our two servants, could politely avoid socializing and collect more information.

  The board was cleared. Brandy and a sweet wine were offered and I chose the brandy. It was not Sandsedge, but it was palatable. The Elderlings rose from their seats and wandered the room, conversing, and we copied their behaviour. Queen Malta came to apologize yet again and to hope that I was well recovered. Phron embarrassed me with the passion of his gratitude and his anger with General Rapskal’s behaviour. Twice I saw Rapskal angling toward me, only to be intercepted by one or another of the Elderlings. We resumed our seats and Harrikin rose. With his knuckles, he rapped on the table three times. Instantly silence fell.

  ‘Keepers, please welcome Prince FitzChivalry, Lord Lant and Lady Amber of the Six Duchies. They come as emissaries from King Dutiful and Queen Elliania. Tonight, we offer them a well-deserved welcome! And our deepest thanks.’

  Plain words. No flowery speech, no reminders of past favours, treaties and services. It took me aback but Amber seemed to expect it. She rose in her place. Blind as she was, she still moved her unsighted gaze over her audience. Did she sense the body-warmth emanating from their shadowy shapes? With unerring accuracy, she turned her face to Harrikin.

  ‘Thank you for this welcoming meal and for your hospitality, and for this opportunity to speak. I will be brief and to the point.’ She allowed herself a smile. ‘I suspect that since we first arrived, gossip has flown swiftly. I believe that most of you know our tale. It is true that we come as emissaries from the Six Duchies, but equally true that Kelsingra is not our destination. As Prince FitzChivalry has restored some of your children to health, you can imagine what pain it would be to have a child stolen. Bee Farseer is no more. When we leave you, it is to embark on a journey of vengeance against the Servants of the Whites.’

  As Amber drew breath, Queen Malta interrupted in a low, soft voice. ‘Lady Amber, if you would allow me
to speak, please?’ There was no rebuke in her voice, only a simple request. Amber was startled but gave a slow nod of agreement. The queen took a deep breath and folded her hands the tabletop. ‘Yesterday we, the Keepers of Kelsingra, met in our council. I shared your tale with them. The parents and some of the children spoke of what Prince FitzChivalry did. We remain overwhelmed with gratitude and all agreed with what the prince said. The lives of our children are not bargaining points for us to haggle over. No amount of coin, no bartered favour from us, could ever match what the prince did for us. We can only offer you undying thanks, and our promise that we will always, forever, remember. And we are a long-lived people now.’ Malta paused and looked around. ‘But you have also gifted us with a vengeance we have long sought. We, too, have endured Chalced’s destructive attacks, on our dragons and on our kin. Chalced’s spies and killers sought to butcher dragons for their body-parts, for remedies to preserve the life of their old duke. Selden, brother to me and beloved singer for our dragons, was brutalized there by both the Duke of Chalced and Ellik. We knew that Ellik was instrumental in the attacks on our dragons. When the dragons took their vengeance on Chalced, toppling the duke’s stronghold and killing him, Ellik fled. The present Duchess of Chalced will undoubtedly be as pleased as we are to hear that you’ve made an end of him. In killing him you have satisfied our family’s desire for vengeance. And that is a debt we are more than willing to pay!

  ‘Thus Reyn, born to the Khuprus family of the Rain Wild Traders and I, born to the Vestrit family of the Bingtown Traders, well understand your desire to follow your vengeance to its final closure. We, as Traders for the Khuprus and Vestrit families, are pleased to offer you like for like, aid in your vengeance for how you achieved ours. We have taken it upon ourselves to arrange your transport from here to Jamaillia. If you are willing, you will board the Tarman when he docks here. The Tarman will carry you to Trehaug, where the liveship Paragon will be waiting for you. He will carry you to Bingtown, and if you wish, to Jamaillia on his trading run. A bird has already been sent to secure your passage. On behalf of our families, we hope you will accept our hospitality aboard these liveships.’

  ‘Liveships,’ Perseverance breathed with a boy’s awe. ‘Are they truly real?’

  Phron grinned at the lad. ‘We will let you judge that for yourselves.’

  I forgot my promise to Amber. ‘I am speechless,’ I said.

  Malta smiled, and I glimpsed the girl she once had been. ‘That’s as well, for I have more to say. The keepers have other gifts they wish to bestow on you.’ She hesitated for a moment. ‘These gifts are of Elderling make. They are useful but also saleable, should your need be extreme.’ She took a breath. ‘It ill behoves one to speak of the value of a gift but I must make you aware that usually these items are only possessed by Traders or sold through Bingtown for extremely large sums.’ She folded her lips for a moment. ‘We break a long-standing tradition in gifting them to you. The Traders of the Rain Wilds and of Bingtown would possibly be offended to know of this action.’

  Amber nodded and her smile grew slowly. ‘We shall be very discreet in our possession of them. And they will not pass out of our custody save in direst need.’

  The relief on Malta’s face was evident, even through her strange Elderling beauty. ‘I am so grateful you understand.’ She nodded and Harrikin went to the door and spoke to someone outside. He received a tidy wooden chest and set it on the table before us. He opened the hinged lid and removed a bracelet from a cloth bag. Delicate silver links supported green and red stones. He presented it to me with a smile that warned me to be dazzled by its value.

  ‘It’s … beautiful,’ I said.

  ‘You don’t know what it is,’ he said in amusement. He slid it back into the bag and offered it to me. ‘Look inside.’

  When I peered into the open mouth of the bag, green and red light shone within. ‘They are flame-jewels,’ Malta informed us. ‘They gleam with their own light. The gems in the bracelet are perfect. Very rare.’

  The other item he removed from the box looked like a porous grey brick. He showed us that it was painted red on one side. ‘This block gives off warmth, when you place it with the red side uppermost. Always take care to stow it with the grey side uppermost for it becomes warm enough to start a fire.’ He met my gaze, and then restored both bracelet and brick to the wooden box. ‘We hope you will accept these with our thanks.’

  ‘You honour us,’ I replied. Magical items worth a king’s ransom in one small box. ‘We accept them with thanks, and will always recall our visit here when we use them.’

  ‘You are welcome to return at any time,’ Queen Malta assured us.

  Amber set an appreciative hand on the box, her face set in determination. ‘As generous as you have been with us, there is still a boon I would ask. Before I name it, I beg you to know that we mean no offence by requesting it.’

  Puzzled glances were exchanged around the table. I had no idea what Amber sought. They had been generous with us beyond my wildest hopes. I wondered what more she could seek. Amber spoke in a soft, low voice. ‘I ask for dragon-Silver. Not a great amount. Only as much as would fill these two vials.’ From a pocket in her skirt she produced two glass containers, each with tight-fitting stoppers.

  ‘No.’ Reyn responded firmly, without hesitation or apology.

  Amber spoke on as if she had not heard him. ‘The Skill, as we call the magic that Prince FitzChivalry used to heal your children, is based in Silver. We do not know exactly how the two are related but they are. The magic of Kelsingra comes from the Silver trapped in the stone. The memories of the people who lived here, the lights that gleam from the buildings, the pools that warm the water, all of it comes from—’

  ‘No. We cannot.’ King Reyn spoke with finality. ‘The Silver is not ours to give. It is the treasure of the dragons.’ He shook his head. ‘Even if we were to say yes, the dragons would not allow you to take it. It would be disastrous for you and for us. We cannot give you Silver.’

  I saw Rapskal shift as if he would speak. The angry glints in his eyes said that he was affronted by her request. I needed to distance us from it. I spoke hastily. ‘There is one other request I would make, one that might be easier for you to grant. One that could, perhaps, benefit Kelsingra as well as the Six Duchies.’

  I paused. ‘You may ask it,’ Queen Malta decided. It was difficult to read her fantastically scaled countenance, but I thought that she too strove to move past the awkwardness.

  ‘I would like to send a message to King Dutiful of the Six Duchies, to tell him that we have arrived safely here, and that you have offered to aid us on the next step of our journey. If I write out a letter for him, is there a way you can convey it for us?’

  ‘Easily done,’ Reyn replied, visibly relieved at the simplicity of my request. ‘If you can write small, a bird can carry such a message to Bingtown. Bingtown has many merchants who exchange birds with Buckkeep Town. I will guarantee that it will reach your king. Eventually. The winds of spring can slow our birds sometimes, but they are hardy creatures.’

  ‘I would greatly appreciate this,’ I responded. I hesitated, and then plunged on. Chade would have forbidden it, but Kettricken would have required it. ‘King Reyn and Queen Malta, in my land, in my king’s court, there are others who share my Skill-magic. Some are far more adept in the healing arts than I am.’ I looked around. ‘There are folk here who asked that I help them. I dare not. The magic of the Silver runs strongly in Kelsingra, too strong for me to control. I would never have chosen to be so …’ I fumbled for a word. Violent? Unrestrained? ‘… hasty in my healing of the children. A better healer than I could have been gentler. A full Skill-coterie with better control of the magic could help not just Elderling children but any folk who were born …’

  They were staring at me. ‘Born different,’ I said, my voice falling lower. They looked terrified. Or stunned. Had I offended? The changes the dragons’ presence had wrought in some of them were too obv
ious to ignore. But perhaps speaking of such was considered offensive.

  Thymara spoke. She was seated nearby but she lifted her voice and her words carried clearly. ‘Those born Changed could be … healed of it?’

  Under the table, Amber gripped my leg in warning. I didn’t need it. I would not promise what I was not certain was possible. ‘Some could,’ I said. ‘I think.’

  Thymara lifted her hands. I thought she would cover her face, but her cupped hands halted where she could stare at her fingers. She had black claws instead of nails. She tapped them against one another pensively.

  The silence in the room shimmered with possibilities. Queen Malta spoke. ‘As soon as you can compose your letter …’ Her voice choked and tailed off.

  Harrikin spoke suddenly. ‘Prince FitzChivalry has offered us something that has been unimaginable.’ He looked around the table at his fellows. ‘Perhaps we should be equally generous. We have always accepted that we were bound by the strictures of Bingtown and the Rain Wilds; that we could only do trade in Elderling goods in those markets. Perhaps it is time to discard that notion.’

  Malta looked shocked. Reyn spoke slowly. ‘You suggest a break with a tradition that dates to the very founding of the Rain Wilds settlements. Many of us feel we owe the Rain Wild Traders little loyalty and the Bingtown Traders even less. On magical goods, we must confer. But for other trade, I see no reason we must be bound.’

  Slow nods met his words.

  King Reyn turned back to us. ‘Ancient maps in the city show that once roads connected Kelsingra to the Mountain Kingdom. Perhaps it is time for us to renew those thoroughfares, and truly become the traders we name ourselves.’

  ‘The Six Duchies have many trade goods. Sheep and wool, grain we grow in plenty, cattle and leather, and iron also we have to trade.’ I smiled to cover my doubts. Would Dutiful honour my impromptu negotiating?

  ‘Grain in plenty. Now there is something we could all celebrate. Within the month, we will dispatch a trade delegation to Buckkeep! Shall we raise a toast to opening our borders?’

  More than one toast was raised that evening. Perseverance’s cheeks were flushed with wine when I saw Lant and Spark exchange a look. Spark put a hand to his shoulder and steered him out of the festivities with dignity if not with the steadiest of gait. A short time later, I pleaded fatigue and Amber retreated with me, leaving Lant to represent the Six Duchies for the rest of that evening.

  As we made our slow ascent, she said quietly, ‘Within King Reyn’s own family there are people severely changed by the Rain Wilds in difficult ways. His sister …’

  I knew what she was asking, ‘Even for his sister, I do not dare—’

  ‘No. I was merely telling you of her. She is in Trehaug now, visiting her family. Even if you were willing to take the risk, you could not. But if there are Six Duchies healers who could help the Rain Wilders, the Six Duchies could gain powerful allies.’

  I sat up until dawn creating my letter to King Dutiful. I composed my words fully expecting that several people would read them before they reached him, if they ever did. I was circumspect, saying only that we had reached Kelsingra and secured passage to Jamaillia. I asked him to arrange passage home for Lant, Per and Spark and told him that he might expect an ambassador from the Dragon Traders with a trade proposal. I added that it was imperative that Skillmistress Nettle be present for all negotiations.

  I wanted to say more. I dared not. I rolled my missive tightly, dipped it in wax, and pushed it into the small cylinder that would attach to a pigeon’s leg. I wished I could Skill a warning to Nettle. These dragon-keepers claimed to be Elderlings and heirs to this city and all its wonders. How would they respond if they knew of Aslevjal and the battered treasures there? Would they attempt to claim them or offer to pool their knowledge of that magic with
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